Monday, December 10, 2018

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

December 25, 1947, release date
Directed by Otto Preminger
Screenplay by David Hertz
Based on the novel Daisy Kenyon by Elizabeth Janeway
Music by David Raksin
Edited by Louis R. Loeffler
Cinematography by Leon Shamroy

Joan Crawford as Daisy Kenyon
Dana Andrews as Dan O’Mara
Henry Fonda as Peter Lapham
Ruth Warrick as Lucille O’Mara
Martha Stewart as Mary Angelus
Peggy Ann Garner as Rosamund O’Mara
Connie Marshall as Marie O’Mara
Nicholas Joy as Coverly
Art Baker as Lucille O’Mara’s attorney

Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

I didn’t expect to like Daisy Kenyon much. I’m not a big fan of Henry Fonda. I always admire Joan Crawford’s work, but I was convinced she would be overpowering in the title role. I have since learned that Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews didn’t want their respective roles for almost the same reason: They were afraid they would not have much to do in what they assumed would be a Joan Crawford vehicle. But Dana Andrews was enough to convince me to see Daisy Kenyon: He is one of my noir favorites. And I wondered why a film about a single woman having an affair with a married man while dating and then marrying another would be called a film noir.

(This blog post about Daisy Kenyon contains the spoiler.)

After seeing the film the first time, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Daisy Kenyon could be called film noir. Foster Hirsch, in the audio DVD documentary, makes the same point I have made about other films: that Daisy Kenyon can belong in more than one category, and Hirsch chooses film noir and the rather outdated category of women’s film. I would call the film about 35 percent noir and 65 percent romantic drama.

I found myself wondering which man Daisy would choose: Peter Lapham or Dan O’Mara, a point that absorbed me completely while following the story. Foster Hirsch mentions in his commentary that the production code at the time wouldn’t have allowed Daisy Kenyon to break up Dan O’Mara’s marriage; thus, viewers today should know the answer to Daisy Kenyon’s dilemma. For once, I’m glad I didn’t put two and two together before I watched Daisy Kenyon!

The cinematography is well-suited to the story. And the story is pretty realistic about the characters and their emotions. The use of light and shadow in the framing of many scenes is what helps make Daisy Kenyon a film noir. The story is not a glamorous and fun portrayal of romance, that much is certain. I think the film does an excellent job of showing violence and the threat of it between romantic partners—even if its overall approach is muted for the production code in place during the 1940s.

Henry Fonda’s character, Peter Lapham, is a World War II veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. His emotional turmoil is part of the narrative and complicates his relationship with Daisy. What I find interesting about the film is that Peter Lapham, in spite of his emotional vulnerability, is the one who outmaneuvers Dan O’Mara. Peter tells Daisy that he knows a thing or two about tactical maneuvers, and he uses it to his advantage in his romantic life.

I watched many of the features that were provided on the DVD (DVD release © Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC), including the following:
“From Journeyman to Artist: Otto Preminger at Twentieth Century Fox”
“Life in the Shadows—The Making of Daisy Kenyon”
Audio commentary by film historian Foster Hirsch
What really struck me as an overarching theme for all of these features was this: male reviewers and commentators telling viewers that Joan Crawford was too old for the part of Daisy Kenyon. I have to admit that I got really tired of hearing that opinion—again and again.

Foster Hirsch mentions that the character of Daisy Kenyon in the novel by Elizabeth Janeway is thirty-two and that Joan Crawford (at age forty-three when the film was released) had passed the Hirsch imaginary cutoff point for age appropriateness in the torn-between-two-lovers dilemma. (Dana Andrews was almost thirty-nine when the film was released; Henry Fonda was forty-two.) According to Hirsch, everyone leaves all doubt and confusion behind when they age out of their thirties! Not one mention is made of Dana Andrews’s portrayal of a married man who is romantically confused enough to be carrying on an affair and isn’t quite sure whether he loves his wife or his mistress, or whether he loves them both equally. And not one mention is made about Dana Andrews being age-inappropriate for the part of Dan O’Mara.

Foster Hirsch also describes the Dan O’Mara character as being “cold.” “Cold,” Mr. Hirsch, is an understatement. In one scene, Dan O’Mara threatens to kill his wife Lucille. In another, he physically assaults Daisy Kenyon in her apartment. The only thing that stops him is the appearance of her friend Mary Angelus at the front door of Kenyon’s apartment. I would say that Dan O’Mara is more than “cold,” Mr. Hirsch: He has a cruel and violent streak.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not suggesting that you pass up these DVD features. They were also packed with a lot of great information: about the production of the film, the three stars (Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews, and Henry Fonda), the director Otto Preminger. But you will have to wade through a lot of male opinion (and it is opinion) about how a woman should be conducting her romantic life. And it may be disconcerting to discover that the male commentary provided by a male film historian in 2008 about a film released in 1947 shows how little has changed since 1947. The DVD was released in 2008—before the Me Too movement; let’s hope more has changed in the last ten years and continues to change.

It might be tough for many to call Daisy Kenyon a film noir, and I can see that point. But the film does have some noir characteristics, with its shadowy cinematography, violence against women, and the ongoing emotional turmoil. I was caught up in the story completely. All three lead actors add a lot of depth to their characters, and none of them acts the star or takes up screen time just because he or she can. I’m glad I didn’t let labels get in the way of seeing the film.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Warlight (Book) (2018)

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje
New York: Knopf, 2018

List of main characters:
Nathaniel Williams (Stitch)
Rachel Williams (Wren)
Rose Williams
Walter (The Moth)
Norman Marshall (The Pimlico Darter)
Olive Lawrence
Arthur McCash

Warlight was such a joy to read that I finished it in three days. The narrative is filled with many of the emotions of noir: betrayal, suspicion, uncertainty, ambiguity, distrust. The story starts with Nathaniel Williams’s childhood memories of his life during World War II in and around London. Part One describes what Nathaniel remembers, and it opens with a section called “A Table Full of Strangers.” The first line of the book is this:
In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. . . . (page 3)

Nathaniel Williams doesn’t understand much about his parents. He doesn’t understand why they leave him and his sister behind in the care and company of people he considers complete strangers. Both he and readers come to understand that his parents were drawn into espionage because of the exigencies of war. Great Britain was under direct attack; German spies and sympathizers were plotting to bring down the British government. Still, Nathaniel’s mother Rose seemed more dedicated and more suited to the work of espionage than most others. She continues her espionage activities after the official declaration of the end of hostilities because peace must still be negotiated and because many want revenge as a result of their wartime experiences. The declaration of peace doesn’t necessarily mean an end to hostilities.

Part Two begins with a section called “Inheritance.” As an adult, Nathaniel begins to wonder if he has inherited some of the traits that made his parents, his mother, so difficult to know, so good at keeping secrets. In Part Two, Nathaniel is now a young man. He buys a house in his mother’s childhood village; he interviews for a government job:
A decade after my mother’s death, I received an invitation to apply to the Foreign Office. My recruitment for such a post seemed initially strange. I participated in several interviews on my first day. One conversation was with an “intelligence collection body,” another with an “intelligence assessment outfit”; both, I was informed, were separate bodies seated at the high table of British Intelligence. No one told me why I had been approached, and there was no one I knew among those who questioned me intricately but seemingly casually. My earlier spotted academic record did not cause them as much concern as I had expected. I assumed that nepotism and my bloodline must have been considered a reliable entrance into a profession that trusted lineage and the possible inherited quality of secrecy. . . . (page 130)

Part Two describes Nathaniel’s early adulthood self trying to make sense out of childhood traumas and more recent sorrows. His memories prompt him, as an adult, to try to reconstruct facts out of unreliability. Nathaniel is able to piece together more than most people can about their childhood and their memories. He is hired to work in a department reviewing war archives, which he sees as a chance to piece together more than just the history of Britain at war. He hopes to learn more about his own personal history and about his mother in particular:
It sounded like drudge work. But accepting a job that included sifting through the details of the war might, I thought, be a way of discovering what my mother had been doing during the period she left us under the guardianship of The Moth. We knew only the stories of her radio broadcasts from the Bird’s Nest on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel during the early stages of the war, or of a night drive to the coast, when she was kept awake by chocolate and the cold night air. We had known no more than that. Perhaps there was now a chance of discovering that missing sequence in her life. It was the possibility of an inheritance. . . . (page 131)

The work does bring some new and tantalizing facts to light for Nathaniel, but the more he learns, the more questions he seems to have, and the more questions he has about his mother’s role in all of it:
We were in fact the second wave of “correction.” I discovered that during the closing stages of the war and with the arrival of peace, a determined, almost apocalyptic censorship had taken place. There had been, after all, myriad operations it was wiser the public never know about, and so the most compromising evidence was, as far as possible, swiftly destroyed—in both Allied and Axis Intelligence headquarters around the globe. . . . (page 133)
Without originally intending to, Nathaniel is now involved in covert work, in keeping more secrets. And he finds that he can only go so far: Facts he can find, but how does one interpret them in the present? Can the past ever be repaired? Can going back repair what is the present?

The opening of the book, which I quoted above, certainly sets the tone for the rest of the book. But just a little bit later in the narrative, another character, Olive Lawrence, underscores the tone in a conversation with Nathaniel and his sister Rachel:
“Half the life of cities occurs at night,” Olive Lawrence warned us [Nathaniel and Rachel Williams]. “There’s a more uncertain morality then. At night there are those who eat flesh by necessity—they might eat a bird, a small dog.” When Olive Lawrence spoke it was more like a private shuffling of her thoughts, a soliloquy from somewhere in the shadows of her knowledge, an idea she was still unsure about. One evening she insisted we catch a bus with her to Streatham Common and walk its slow rise of land to the Rookery. Rachel felt uncertain in that open darkness, wished to go home, said it was cold. But the three of us kept moving forward, until we were eventually in the trees and the city had evaporated behind us. (page 56)
Nathaniel felt safe with Olive Lawrence, but his sister wasn’t quite so convinced. And even a person (possibly) representing safety gives the children a speech that is a warning as much as it describes an adventure.

The title of the novel—Warlight—is an inspiration. It suggests darkness, with just enough light to see that danger is lurking. It suggests that everything about a childhood is remembered through a prism that changes events just enough. It suggests that everything about wartime is cloaked in secrecy and, if necessary, denial, and that nothing is as it seems, even while it is happening.

I shall have to read Warlight again, perhaps blog about it again. I imagine that a story like this one doesn’t yield all its secrets after a single reading. But I am already looking forward to reading it again. I can picture it as a neo-noir film, and I hope that someone in the film industry has the same idea.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Prowler (Part I) (1951)

May 25, 1951, release date
Directed by Joseph Losey
Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Hugo Butler
Based on a story by Robert Thoeren, Hans Wilhelm
Music by Lyn Murray
Edited by Paul Weatherwax
Cinematography by Arthur C. Miller

Van Heflin as Webb Garwood
Evelyn Keyes as Susan Gilvray
John Maxwell as Bud Crocker
Katherine Warren as Grace Crocker
Emerson Treacy as William Gilvray
Madge Blake as Martha Gilvray
Wheaton Chambers as Dr. William James
Robert Osterloh as the coroner
Louise Lorimer as the motel manager
Sherry Hall as John Gilvray
Dalton Trumbo as the radio voice of John Gilvray (uncredited)

This blog post about The Prowler is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2018 Fall Blogathon: Outlaws.
The Prowler is a very unsettling film, and that very characteristic, one of many, makes it thoroughly noir. The film opens with a woman, Susan Gilvray, dressed in a towel and standing in her bathroom. Susan suddenly notices someone looking in her window and pulls down her shade in alarm. The camera (and thus the viewers) are outside her window looking in, so viewers are put in the position of watching her, just like the prowler who is outside her window. Viewers never see this person, which adds ambiguity to the film and puts a question mark on Susan’s reliability: Did she see a prowler or not?

The credits appear over the window shade that Susan just pulled down. After the credits, two police officers, Webb Garwood and his partner Bud Crocker, arrive to investigate Susan’s report of the prowler outside her bathroom window. Neither officer seems to take her very seriously, which probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many viewers. It’s a common enough reaction today, and I’m sure it was even more common in the 1950s. Here’s the conversation that opens the film, with Susan Gilvray showing Officer Crocker where she was standing in the bathroom when she saw the prowler:
Bud Crocker: “Well, if I was you, from now on, I’d keep the curtain closed. You ever notice in a bank, they always keep the counting room out of sight so the customers won’t be tempted.”
Susan Gilvray: “I suppose you’re right. I just didn’t think . . . [startled by Webb] Oh, it’s you.”
Webb Garwood: [outside the bathroom window smirking and looking in] “No footprints out here. The grass has just been cut, and they’d be kind of hard to spot. Then again, maybe the lady’s just imagining things.”
Susan Gilvray: [to Crocker] “He was just as plain as your friend’s face just now.”

The audience can see Officer Webb Garwood’s face plainly through the bathroom window, which is presumably the same view Susan had of the prowler. The film cuts to a shot of Officer Webb Garwood outside making his way from the bathroom window to the Gilvrays’ front door, which opens to reveal Officer Bud Crocker and Susan Gilvray. Officer Garwood steps over the threshold to join their conversation.
Susan Gilvray: “I’m sorry to have caused you all this trouble, but I do get nervous at night, and—”
Bud Crocker: “That’s our job, ma’am. You always alone at night?”
Susan Gilvray: “Yes. The maid comes in daytimes, but she leaves right after dinner.”
Bud Crocker: “Well, from now on, be sure and pull the shades and lock the door.” [steps outside the front door]
Susan Gilvray: “I will.”
Webb Garwood: [steps outside the front door and turns his back to the camera] “Think you’ll feel comfortable enough for us to leave now?”
Susan Gilvray: “Oh, yes, I’m perfectly all right now.”
Webb Garwood: “I’m sure you are.” [Camera now on Officer Garwood, who is smiling snidely]

The creepiness really begins when Officer Webb Garwood decides Susan Gilvray is rich enough to do him some good, and he returns to her home one night under the pretense that he is simply following up for her own safety. Once Susan Gilvray allows Officer Garwood into her home, he begins to insinuate himself into her life with the idea of manipulating her into a relationship with him. Susan Gilvray is a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, and she is vulnerable to Webb Garwood’s advances.

I couldn’t help wondering what Susan sees in Webb, and this might be a big stumbling block to the believability of the narrative. Susan strikes me as an intelligent woman, but perhaps her options were much more limited in 1951 precisely because she is a woman. (I cannot help wondering how this story would be remade in the wake of the Me Too movement.) She is drawn in deeper and deeper by slow degrees, and that approach might help a lot of viewers accept Susan’s actions. I had a tough time believing that Susan would be swayed by all of Webb’s plans and schemes. Webb is a master manipulator, however, and he works hard to get what he wants. Webb Garwood is what makes the story so creepy. That part was definitely believable.

You may be asking yourself, “But how does The Prowler fit the outlaw theme of this blogathon?” And it’s a good question because you might also be thinking, from all I’ve described so far, that nothing about the film seems to be about outlaws.

(This blog post about The Prowler contains spoilers.)

Most of the characters are not outlaws, but Officer Webb Garwood turns into one over the course of the film. All his scheming and plotting puts him outside the law that he is supposed to uphold. He may start the film in a patrol officer’s uniform, but he doesn’t end the film in the same role or wearing the same clothes. He literally leaves it all behind and heads for an abandoned mining town so that he can cover up any circumstantial evidence that points to his role in the death of his wife Susan’s first husband. He takes Susan, who is now pregnant, to the mining town with him after convincing her that he has enough experience as a police officer that he can deliver their child without any outside medical help!

If Webb Garwood has his way, the whole family will be living in isolation, outside society and outside the law. Garwood and his pregnant wife do head for the abandoned town: He convinces Susan that she can live an outlaw life with him. But Webb doesn’t get his way in the end, partly because he cannot keep convincing Susan that he has her best interests at heart and that all of his plans will work out. She realizes that living like an outlaw with a baby and with a husband who cannot be trusted is no way to live.

Webb refuses to give in: He would rather stay on the run. In very noir fashion, he dies a fugitive from the law—an outlaw. He may not fit the conventional definition, but Webb Garwood is an outlaw, one with a very creepy twist.

I plan to write again about The Prowler soon. In the meantime, you can find links for all the entries in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2018 Fall Blogathon: Outlaws by clicking here.